Chess Composers B. G. Laws Lecture by B. G. Laws


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Lecture by B. G. Laws
Written by Michael McDowell   
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Lecture by B. G. Laws
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In February 1924 Laws gave a lecture to the BCPS consisting of his reminiscences of nearly fifty years’ involvement in the chess problem world. The text of this lecture follows:

Recollections 1877-1924. by B.G. Laws

In a fragmentary way I propose to relate approximately in order of date some of the occurrences which have impressed me during that portion of my chess career which has been devoted to what is so often termed the ‘Poetry of Chess’. In doing so, I shall endeavour, as far as I can, to be anecdotal, but throughout I fear you may notice the personal element somewhat pronounced, in which case, I crave your indulgence.

The problems I shall set will not, with perhaps a few exceptions, be exemplary models. In some respects they have been landmarks which have helped me to retain in treasured memory a few of the events I propose to refer to.

In the year 1877, a colleague and myself whilst “serving our time”, (not at the Country's expense) had more leisure than perhaps was good for us during the daytime, the principal work of the Office being done after the rising of the Courts. We agreed to learn the game of chess and, knowing no-one who could teach us, we acquired the rudiments as best we could from a short treatise contained in “The Boys' Treasury”. After a time we put up what we considered some good fights but our playing strength may be estimated when I say that if either one of us gave to the other the odds of the queen, the result would have been in the balance – either might have won! Our struggles continued for some weeks when a friend, some years our senior, called on business and on seeing us playing became interested. Later on he gave us a few games, beating us unmercifully. We looked upon him as a genius. After falling a victim to the “Scholar's Mate”, I tried the trick on him which he met in an unorthodox way. This however gave me my first glimpse of chess strategy. The moves were1.e4 e5 2.Bc4 Bc5 3.Qf3 Sh6(?). Now I saw that if I could annihilate or dislodge this knight, I could mate; so it struck me that by opening my queen bishop's diagonal I might have a chance and in order to take his attention from the attack on the knight and direct it to the bishop, I played 4.d4 which at least ensured the winning of a piece. It had the desired effect, and I brought off the mate! From this date I schemed and my playing strength greatly improved.

In the same year a new London weekly was published: Brief, being a concise summary of the week's news. In issue 12 of the paper (January 1878), a chess column was started by F. C. Collins. Neither my colleague nor myself had seen a chess problem but Brief's No. 1 by the Editor being only in two moves, we attempted to solve it and ultimately came to the conclusion there was something wrong with the diagram.

(1) F. C. Collins

Brief, 19th January 1878


Mate in 2

We imagined Mr. Editor when the time came to print the solution would be profuse in apology; but no, nothing of the sort, the problem was quite correct and we marvelled. To move the knight, giving up a rook to the black king, seemed to indicate symptoms of insanity, and we never gave that move a second thought. Obviously Collins could not have been proud of the problem, as it does not appear in his collection published in 1880. We were, however, so charmed with this position when we understood it that we sought for more and shortly became passable solvers.

This problem by Collins in which we were so reluctant to give up a rook made me in my innocence fancy that it might be puzzling to arrange a position with the rook unprotected and left so by White's first move, because I argued that a solver would naturally remove the rook to safety or support it. The result was my first problem, which appeared in Brief in 1878.

(2) B. G. Laws

Brief, 7th June 1878


Mate in 2

I had not in those days the slightest notion of any rules connected with problems, but had a consciousness that an alternative first move was wrong, moreover I did not realise that multiple mates were damaging. I gradually got to know better as I consulted as many papers as I could which catered for chess players, the chief at the period being besides Brief, Illustrated London News, Illustrated Sporting and Dramatic News, Field, Land & Water, London Figaro, English Mechanic, Design & Work, Royal Exchange, Holloway Press, and a little later Leeds Mercury and Glasgow Weekly Herald.

It would probably be in the winter of 1879 that my old friend A. Tremaine Wright, who was taking a fatherly interest in my chess and helping considerably in my small literary work, persuaded me to accompany him to Gatti’s Adelaide Gallery. He had been accustomed to dine or sup there and watched the games. He rather wanted to arrange for me to have a tilt with an old stager, Drew by name. It was the first time I had entered a public place where chess was an attraction. My friend sought out Drew and asked him to give me a game, which he was willing to do so soon as he had disposed of the opponent with whom he was then engaged. I crossed over to other tables and found several zealots congregated scanning a problem. I enquired about the conditions and was informed it was a mate in seven.

(3) H. Bolton

Chess Player's Chronicle, 31st July 1841


Mate in 7

I viewed it from behind and hit on the solution (which is quite simple) and played it over. The question immediately came: “You have seen it before?” I assured them I had not but they were sceptical. One of the party (Reyner) said: “We will test him. I have some problems he cannot have seen.” He set two or three up and I polished them off without much effort. Planck, who was present, then produced a three-mover which no one had set eyes on and I treated that in like manner. All this dissipated any doubt they may have entertained as to my genuineness. After this I was always welcomed to their band. I had to leave the solvers’ circle then, though I did so reluctantly, for my game with Drew, which to my elation ended in my favour.

When I made Planck’s acquaintance he was a Cambridge undergraduate, but shortly after he was appointed Professor of Mathematics at an important school in Surrey. He used to come to town at weekends and many a Friday and Saturday was spent by us in company with other congenial amateurs at Gatti’s and Café Monico. Our camaraderie strengthened to lasting friendship. I have no hesitation in saying he was largely instrumental in directing attention to the superiority of the methods practised and results obtained by the Bohemians, but he contended that as the modus operandi was the ideal one, being the logical application of sound principles, the Bohemians could not claim it as national, since it was the result of that process of evolution which takes place in every sphere of science and art, and not discovery or invention. Consequently he preferred the term “Modern”. It was he who demonstrated the incongruities of the advertised conditions of important tourneys which announced that the judges would allot points (up to a maximum) for such qualities as neatness, symmetry, naturalness, variety and economy. These are all comprised in economy of force. Tradition however clings like limpets to a rock and this quality is not universally appreciated. Even today some composers consider that they are exempt from the trammels imposed by the best modern practice.

In the days of my novitiate there were not so many composers as now and fewer publications which encouraged chess. It was seldom in this country that we had the opportunity of comparing products emanating from foreign lands with those of our own. In 1879 H. J. C. Andrews reproduced in the Chess Players' Chronicle this three-mover by J. Chocholous.

(4) J. Chocholous


Mate in 3

The delicate setting with the purity of the mates (models were not appreciated then as they were afterwards) made deep impressions. To this problem I attribute the birth of a campaign having for its object the promotion of fine constructional work. It was a revelation and from that time Planck, seconded by a few other admirers, endeavoured to inculcate in others methods of artistic construction.

(5) H. J. C. Andrews

1st Prize, Lowenthal Memorial Tourney, 1878


Mate in 2

When I read the comments made on the late H. J. C. Andrews' prize two-mover in the Lowenthal Tourney of 1878 which had special reference to the feat of allowing the black king five flight squares with a corresponding number of distinct mating moves, I tried my hand with six flights.

(6) B. G. Laws


Mate in 2

Soon after it was completed Design & Work announced an international tourney, and as Andrews was appointed judge of the two-movers I entered my problem hopefully, as he had expressed the opinion something to the effect that such an achievement would rank as a master-stroke but he doubted its possibility. Alas! I placed one of the rooks on a square which let in a cook. I had however the satisfaction of feeling I had been first in the field to carry out the task. My prescience was correct as Andrews afterwards told me he would unhesitatingly have awarded my entry first prize had it been sound.

(7) B. G. Laws

1st Prize, Design and Work, 1881


Mate in 3

In the three-move section of the tourney I was given first prize. I was delighted at the success as several of the competitors were composers of standing. Viewed in the light of modern proficiency the problem is no more than a fair specimen of the Transition period. The judge (the late W. T. Pierce) rather suggested that the position was conceived on the lines of a two-mover of his published in 1873 in the Westminster Papers which I had not seen, but the resemblance was not sufficient to interfere with his real appreciation of its originality.

(8) W. T. Pierce

Westminster Papers, 1873


Mate in 2

This three-mover was widely circulated and brought me some popularity, several chess editors inviting contributions to their columns. This was mere glamour and I am sorry to admit I succumbed with the result that I gave more thought to quantity than quality. Many of my problems now scoff me in their mediocrity and insignificance.

My name has been associated with reflex chess - a variant from the self-mate, and perhaps it may not be uninteresting if I explain how the idea occurred. From 1880 onwards, I often met the late Mr. Geary at Gatti’s. About 1882 we were looking over an ordinary self-mate which I thought I had solved, but Black was not compelled to make the mating move though it was open as an option. The play leading to this stage was pretty and I jestingly said: “When Black can mate in such a position he ought to be compelled to do so.” Before our next meeting a day or so after I composed a problem carrying out this apparent obliquity which was published in the Brighton Guardian. Geary was responsible for the name “Reflex”; he composed one or two little things on similar lines as also did C. H. Coster, a young and promising composer. None of these was published as far as I remember. The innovation however did not take the fancy of problem composers and solvers in those days. Reflex chess makes a good game. Geary, Coster and myself often revelled in the fantastic charms it produced. It was comical to see the expression of bewilderment of on-lookers who were unaware of the motives of our moves. Some must have thought it was time we were taken care of. No wonder with the kings in the middle of the board and men massed around them aroused curiosity. Here is an illustrative problem: I might mention that this diversion of chess is becoming quite popular on the Continent due to the interest which our enthusiastic member T. R. Dawson has taken in it.

(9) B. G. Laws

Schack Kurios


Reflexmate in 2

I was introduced to Frank Healey at Simpsons' Divan by the late Sir John Thursby and Wilhelm Steinitz about 1881. I thought it was a great privilege to be allowed to enjoy the personal acquaintance of the man who had up to that time stood in the foreground of the English School. He took a genuine interest in me and I received much encouragement from him. I fear I pestered him with many questions which with dry humour he satisfied. He explained that in his young days he studied the long drawn out problems which came his way, checks sacrifice, sacrifice checks were ubiquitous, and saw that many of the strategems could be condensed by quiet moves. He admitted many of his problems were not only inspired by but actually based upon the works of contemporaries and predecessors showing however no traces of their origin.

On seeking information regarding the famous “Bristol” problem, he told me that the idea occurred to him that as solvers were getting so alive to sacrificial devices, it might prove puzzling if instead of placing an important piece at the mercy of the defence and getting rid of it as a superfluity in this way, it was removed to the remotest square available and there remained dead. Of course the moves of the attack which followed the key move had to dovetail with the far away exile. This explanation rather tends to support A. C. White's term “passive sacrifice” as applied to the “Bristol” and other clearance schemes.

One Saturday afternoon at Simpsons' I set up a little three-mover, quite a bagatelle, just composed; it pleased him.

(10) B. G. Laws

Chess Player's Chronicle, 1880


Mate in 3

After a little while Horwitz (the end-game specialist) came in and Healey asked me to put this problem up again, remarking to Horwitz that it would make him think. This appeared to me to be banter. The latter soon made the key move (1.Rf1). When Healey promptly replied 1...f3+, Horwitz followed with 2.Kxf3, but 2...g4+ came as a shock. “I never saw that”, said Horwitz, and at once replaced the men, starting afresh much to the glee of Healey and myself. Of course it was not long before the solution came, with feigned disgust at being eluded.

I often saw Horwitz about this period and as the question regarding the origin of the term “Cook” was then being discussed in problem circles, I asked him if he could throw any light on the subject. He corroborated the statement which had been made that Kling (who had frequently collaborated with him in end-game and problem study) would on Horwitz greeting him with: “I have a raw idea,” ironically reply “Well, I will cook your raw idea.” If Horwitz's account can be relied upon, this should settle a debated point.

One evening in 1883 I dropped into Gatti’s for refreshment before going to Toole's Theatre which was hard by. I had just composed this two-mover, and so set it up and left it for the entertainment of the few solvers present.

(11) B. G. Laws

Croydon Guardian, 24th November 1883
(published without bPb6)


Mate in 2

Returning about 11p.m., I was amused to see the position still on the board being tackled by a fresh set of solvers, quite strangers to me. One however ejaculated “Here is Laws, he will solve it for us.” I glanced at the board with an assumed air and pointed out that the black pawn at b6 was not wanted. Off it came and someone found the key move in a few minutes. I had placed this unnecessary pawn on the board intentionally to make the problem more difficult to solve and though this was not a proper thing to do, it effected its purpose. A case of giving the quality of difficulty preferential consideration.

One Saturday afternoon I strolled into Gatti’s and found a few enthusiasts studying a three-mover by Walter Grimshaw from the current issue of the Illustrated London News, among them being the late J. Graham Campbell, one of the finest composers and players of his time. I had not met him before.

(12) W. Grimshaw

Illustrated London News


Mate in 3

He was pointing out the beauty of the solution commencing with 1.Sf5. I had previously solved the problem by 1.Qg5, being helped by having made the acquaintance of a four-mover by the same composer, published in 1868. When I suggested the queen key move, Campbell said it was absurd and resented my interference. Others in the group saw with surprise that the move was effective. Campbell however expressed the opinion that the solution he had found was the author's. Strange to say the knight move solution appeared in the I.L.N. as the only one a fortnight later. I wrote to the chess editor (P. T. Duffy) as well as to Grimshaw. The latter replied that he was unaware the position yielded to 1.Sf5 and that 1.Qg5 was his intention. The position is quoted by L. Hoffer in his article on chess in Encyclopaedia Britannica. It can be put right by adding a black knight at a6 when the black pawn at a4 becomes unnecessary.

For reasons which I do not now remember, the problem habitués of Gatti’s changed their rendezvous to Café Monico. We certainly were more secluded, but the chess room was not too well ventilated; still this was compensated for by our ventilation of ideas! I look back with pleasure on those evenings and recall many of the old frequenters who were ardent composers and keen solvers. A few come to mind: Barbier, Bedell, Brockelbank, Coster, Enderle, Geary, Guest, Piercher, Planck, Reyner and Rosenbaum. Sometimes Blackburne and Zukertort would honour us by their presence both at Café Monico and Gatti’s. This arrangement of meeting at a convenient resort was the best which could be suggested. Friday and Saturday were the most popular evenings. Chess, literature, drama, music, mathematics, athletics and politics were among the subjects discussed, and when the party dispersed it was with feelings that the time had not been ill-spent. On one of these occasions Brockelbank was challenged to compose a three-mover without the sight of board and men. He was known to enjoy the uncommon facility of playing the game sans voir. Before our usual hour for breaking up was reached, he produced this problem, explaining he had built around a powerful threat on a constrained king, the better to control things and thus render the task lighter. Seeing the peculiar subtleness of the play after the two principal defences of the black queen it was a notable accomplishment.

(13) C. H. Brockelbank


Mate in 3

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